On Wednesday, 28 November 2012, exactly one week after the announcement of the ceasefire between Israel and all armed factions in the Gaza Strip, the al Hessi fishing boat was fired at by Israeli naval forces off the coast of Deir al Balah in the Gaza Sea. Although the terms of the ceasefire indicated that Israel would ease restrictions on fishing in Palestinian waters, the fishermen from the al Hessi family were targeted while sailing less than 6 nautical miles offshore. Mohammed al Hessi was arrested and taken to Ashdod seaport in Israel, where he was detained and questioned before being released at the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. The four other fishermen onboard were held on an Israeli gunboat for several hours and then released into Palestinian waters.
Mohammed describes what happened that day:
“We left the fishing port at 7.30 in the morning and sailed out to 6 nautical miles because we believed this was allowed after the ceasefire agreement. We felt comfortable to sail that far, as we did not expect that Israeli forces would attack us. There were five of us on the boat: my son, Morad Mohammed al Hessi, who is 19; my brother, Ahmed Morad al Hessi, who is 30; my cousin, Rajab Reshad al Hessi, who is 34; and my distant cousin, Sameh Mahmoud al Hessi, who is 35.
We began fishing but, after a few hours, at around 10.30am, we were approached by two Israeli gunboats. The gunboats began firing at us, trying to force us to go back towards the shore. The Israeli soldiers were yelling at us. They ordered my relatives to take off their clothes, jump into the water, and swim towards the gunboats. I was told to stay on the boat.
After a while, two more Israeli gunboats appeared. Four Israeli soldiers jumped onto our boat, and blindfolded and handcuffed me. They treated me like an animal. Later, when they removed the blindfold and handcuffs, I saw that we were in Israel. The Israeli forces had tugged our boat to Ashdod seaport.”
After his arrival in Ashdod, Mohammed was interrogated for around an hour:
“An Israeli soldier asked me many questions in fluent Arabic. From his uniform, I think he was an officer. He asked me my name, address, age, and marital status. He also asked me for my mobile number. When I asked him why, he said that they were going to keep our fishing boat, but they would call me if they wanted to return it. I was examined by a doctor who took my temperature and blood pressure and asked me some questions about my health. At around 9.30pm, I was transported to Erez crossing and I returned to Gaza.
After I was released, I found out that the four other men had been kept onboard an Israeli gunboat until around 2.30 in the afternoon. They were released into the sea off the northern part of Gaza from where they swam to the safety onboard other boats belonging to fishermen from Gaza. I visited the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights the next day to explain what had happened to me. Their lawyer in Israel is following up and trying to get our boat back from the Israelis.”
Before this, Mohammed had been hopeful that Israel’s agreement to refrain from restricting the free movement of people in the Gaza Strip would bring real changes for fishermen:
“When we heard about the agreement, we couldn’t believe it. We were so happy to hear the news that the sea would be open up to 6 nautical miles. All of the fishermen in Gaza were happy. I was so surprised when we were attacked and our boat was confiscated just a week after the ceasefire was announced. I don’t understand why Israel is doing this.”
Being unable to fish is causing great economic hardship to Mohammed and his family:
At sea, the six nautical mile fishing zone imposed in October 2006 was reduced to three nautical miles (often less in practice), preventing Palestinian fishermen from accessing 85% of the 20 nm fishing zone agreed under the Oslo Accords. The severely limited fishing area, combined with a near total ban on exports, has brought Gaza’s fishing industry to the brink of collapse. As a result, the number of working fishermen has fallen from 10,000 in 1999 to around 3,200 today, dramatically affecting the livelihoods of 39,000 dependents. The 3,200 fishermen who are still working provide for the livelihood of approximately 19,200 dependents.
“Losing our boat has been a disaster. The fishing boat is our only source of income. All of us who work on the boat have families to look after, around 150 people altogether. We all have wives and daughters. They depend on us for everything. I must provide for my wife and seven children, but I can’t do that without a boat for fishing. My children need food, books, and other supplies for school, which I cannot give them. This makes me feel so sad.
I want to know why this happened to us, even though Israel agreed to a ceasefire. We should have been allowed to go that distance. Even when we are able to fish, we are always under the control and observation of the Israeli forces. All I want is to have my boat back. I just want to live a peaceful life and be able to fish freely.”
Israel’s attacks against Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip, who do not pose any threat to the security of the Israeli naval forces, constitute a flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. The fishing exclusion zone, maintained through arbitrary arrests and attacks, constitutes a measure of collective punishment which is prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The arrest and subsequent detention of fishermen are carried out arbitrarily, without substantial grounds or reference to any reason for the arrest. This is a violation of Article 9 of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In confiscating fishing boats, Israel denies fishermen the right to livelihood by removing their means to make a living. The right to not to be arbitrarily deprived of property is protected under Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The right to work, including in just and favourable conditions, is provided for under Article 23 of the UDHR, as well as under Article 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 11 of the ICESCR, moreover, provides for “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”